Photo: Courtesy of Blue Rider Press

The American Republic in the 21st century is massively corrupt. That's how former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart opens what he calls his new manifesto. He points to a "vast and cancerous network of lobbying, campaign fundraising, and special interests," and believes the founding fathers would be repulsed.

Hart represented Colorado from 1975 to 1987 and twice ran for president. More recently, he earned a doctorate at Oxford, focused on Thomas Jefferson's views of an ideal Republic. Hart's new book is called "The Republic of Conscience." He spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Editor's note: This conversation originally aired on July 22, 2015. 

Read an excerpt:

This is a book about a republic—the American Republic—what it was meant to be and what it has become. In some crucial respects the twenty-first-century American Republic is not the country our founders thought they had created.

The search for the causes of the increasing gap between word and deed starts with an understanding of what a republic actually is or ought to be.

At their best, republics, including ours, have demonstrated four basic qualities: popular sovereignty; a sense of the common good; demonstration of civic virtue by its citizens; and resistance to the forces of corruption.

Popular sovereignty, of course, means that all political power ultimately rests with the people. A sense of the commonwealth involves an appreciation for all those assets and resources held by all the people—public properties and the public institutions that preserve them. Civic virtue means performance of the duties of citizenship to maintain the integrity of the republic and protect the rights it provides. And corruption historically meant placing narrow, special, or personal interests ahead of the common good in government.

By gauging the twenty-first-century American Republic against these standards, ones universally accepted by our founders, we can begin to understand where and how America today is falling short and why so many Americans feel something is missing, that something has gone wrong.

If America is not living up to its promise, it is important to know how and why.

The corruption feared by our founders is insidious. Once members of Congress lose sight of the common good and enter the never-ending realm of narrow interests and ensuring their own reelections, that narrow, self-interested view becomes apparent to all in government and permeates the administrative bureaucracy. As a leading New York Times columnist wrote in the fall of 2014: “Getting elected and raising money to get re-elected—instead of governing and compromising in the national interest—seems to be all that too many of our national politicians are interested in anymore.” He attributes laxness in the Secret Service and lackadaisical performance throughout government to the lack of performance and purpose among elected officials: “It actually looks as if they came to Washington to get elected so they could raise more money to get re-elected. That is, until they don’t get re-elected. Then, like the former House majority leader, Eric Cantor, they can raise even more money by cashing in their time on Capitol Hill for a job and a multimillion-dollar payday from a Wall Street investment bank they used to regulate.”

That is the current state of American politics in a nutshell. And it is not what America’s founders had in mind for this nation. The ancient fear of the corruption of the republic was caused by the knowledge that when self-interest replaced the common good and the national interest, a republic would no longer survive. And this is why it matters.

It would be illusory to believe that a large majority of Americans spend much time comparing our founding beliefs and ideals with our performance in the twenty-first century. But few would dispute that we are experiencing a moment in our history, like few others before, when we seem unmoored and adrift.

There are certainly economic discomforts and failures, dis- mal political performances, and constricting options in man- aging world affairs today. It will require the passage of time to be able to look back and properly analyze and describe the American experience during our current time. The purpose of this book is to explore the possibility that our disquiet is caused by a deep sense that we are becoming, or perhaps have become, a different kind of nation than we believe ourselves to be.

If this is so, even to a degree, then it is worth asking how and why. The thoughts offered here in response to these questions are a reflection of one American’s long life combining public service and private endeavor, learning and teaching in the academy, and, most of all, writing and thinking.

I can personally testify that American politics have taken a distinctly downward turn in the space of one mature lifetime. Many in my generation entered public service directly as a result of President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to give part of our lives in service to our country. Whether he realized it or not, and I believe he did, this challenge had its roots in the republican ideal from ancient Athens. 

Republics rise or fall depending on the exercise of responsibility and duty by their citizens. We have not heard that challenge for more than half a century.

My reflections are those of a political fundamentalist, not an “originalist” of the judicial kind but a citizen who cannot help but take the ideas of those who founded this country seriously. I believe the founders meant what they said and wrote, and I believe they identified the character of our nation with the precepts, principles, systems, and ideals they laid down as our foundation. To depart measurably from them is to become a different nation.

My belief that our founders were pragmatists has been con- firmed over and over again by scholars much more learned than I. Being pragmatists, the founders knew that change is the essence of human existence. Very little stays the same, and certainly almost nothing abides in the chaotic evolution, revolution, and upheaval in the human struggle to structure governments.
So the founders would be the first to advice that we adapt our systems and our policies to the realities of the current age. Though libraries could be filled with lists of the differences between the early twenty-first century and the late eighteenth, policies and programs, at home and abroad, must still flow from a system of value—in our case, values built upon notions of equality, fairness, duty, rights, and the common good that do not change.

Thus, it matters whether we have sacrificed those values to expediency, the corner cutting brought on by urgency, immediacy, shortsightedness, and impatience. New realities require new economic ideas, new defense structures, new technologies, and new ways of dealing with other nations. But new realities do not require a nation founded on ancient ideals of the republic to become a different kind of nation. We call people who remake themselves for the moment chameleons. Like individuals, nations can sacrifice their core identity out of false information, rigid ideology, expediency, a desire to demonstrate power, and even greed. This is why serious consideration of our present-day performance against the backdrop of our historic values is a necessary undertaking.

There is an additional argument for reviewing our present condition. The founders intended that the republic they were creating have a life beyond them. They drafted and adopted a Constitution whose very preamble makes it clear they were establishing a nation “to us and our posterity.” To a crucial degree, the republic they bequeathed to future generations can perpetuate itself only by the adherence of their posterity to the principles and ideals built into its governing documents, structures, and institutions.

Even as we pay tribute to the system of government bequeathed to us by our founders, we acknowledge that the nation they created was far from perfect. Slavery, foremost, but also equal rights for women, voting rights, and many other shortcomings had to be confronted—often in conflict— and overcome. But our nation’s successful struggles to resolve these shortcomings are reasons for encouragement.

Much of our nation’s nobility has to do with the relation- ship of the citizen to his or her government and the opportunities for practical participation in government our founding system provides. Despite civil wars and bitter social and political struggles, all conducted before a global public, Americans can be proud of hard-won progress in achieving our claims for ourselves.

First: access. The enfranchisement of women a century ago, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and lowering the voting age to eighteen have dramatically opened the doors to full participation in American democracy. For several decades, states have made access to the polls much easier. Unfortunately, we are in yet another period of retrenchment when, for blatantly political motives, laws are being enacted to make voting more difficult. Despite protestations that these exclusionary laws and practices are to prevent voter fraud, of which there is virtually none, the clear purpose of those leading the retrenchment is to disenfranchise minorities, those living on the margin, and those with less education.

Second: transparency. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, citizen groups struggled to open closed  political doors. Legislative sessions became more open. Cable television provided wide coverage of activities of the House and Senate. Latter-day muckrakers disclosed questionable practices and shady dealings. Public disclosure of destructive business practices led to a generation of sweeping environmental laws, safeguards against corrupt practices, worker health- and-safety regulations, increased regulation of financial markets (until these were subverted in the 1990s), and greater accountability on the part of policy makers, legislators, and administrators. This is a never-ceasing struggle. The forces of self-interest always prefer the corridors of power to be dark.

Third: military transformation. Nothing is so hard as to change traditional and conservative institutions. Our military is no different. The services and their supporters rightly argue that they have kept our nation secure—that is, until Vietnam and 9/11. Vietnam was never a threat to our security and we encountered a form of warfare there that was unfamiliar to us. 9/11 continued this revelation by proving our nation vulnerable to terrorists using unconventional means of attack.

A few reformers began to call for changes in military thinking as early as the mid-1970s. Few would listen. Then- junior officers with experience in Vietnam rose in the ranks and began to achieve senior commands and the long, slow process of transformation began. It has been accelerated by the experiences of another generation of junior officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, we now have a de facto fifth military service built around Special Forces. It is called the Special Operations Command and it links SEALs, Delta Force, Army Rangers, and the Air Force’s Special Forces.

Special Operations now forms the tip of the security spear and will increasingly be tasked with responding to low- intensity, unconventional conflicts carried out by stateless nations using cities as their battlefields. This military trans- formation is historic and will prove its worth in coming days. It does not necessarily improve our standard of living, but it does better protect it.

Finally: though much of this book focuses on the corrupting influence of large-scale corporate donors and special interest money in politics, there is a faint glimmer of hope even in a dark tunnel. The most positive innovation in recent American political practice is the raising of small contributions largely through the Internet. This breakthrough first occurred on a notable scale in the first Barack Obama presidential campaign in 2008 and returned in even larger form in his reelection effort in 2012. There are also Internet websites springing up—Act Blue, for example—that specialize in raising small- donor funds and channeling them to Democratic candidates. Over ten years, Act Blue has raised and distributed more than $600 million. Even this innovation, however, has a dubious side; some of its funds go into the so-called Super PACs that have come to dominate American politics.

Even though there have been some areas of genuine progress, objectivity requires  us to carefully examine  the areas where our deeds and our performance fall far short of our promise and our principles, and where the spotlight of world public opinion reveals the largest gaps in our national con- duct. This is the beginning of the hard road. Honesty about our shortcomings is as important as an equally candid assay of our achievements, what genuinely we can be proud of.

Only after placing failures and successes on the national scales can we see the road ahead and decide whether we will choose to continue on the hard road of continued struggle to form a more perfect union or be content with the smooth road of just getting along.

Not only is our government now almost totally focused on the thousands of particular industries, companies, interest groups and their narrow agendas, an iron-clad, copper- riveted link has also been forged connecting attention to those agendas with the staggering sums of money contributed by those interest groups to election campaigns for president, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Much like efficient plumbing, American politics is becoming a closed system. And the realization of how destructive that closed system is has led to the rise of Tea Partiers and Occupiers alike.

Everyday citizens, even those who pay dues to one or more of the national groups that hire expensive lobbyists, shake their heads with wonder and disgust at the conspicuousness of the system’s corruption and the equation of successful manipulation of the laws with staggeringly expensive and unrewarding political campaigns. How airtight this system has become and how closed to sunlight’s disinfectant is measured by the hundreds of former members of Congress and the thousands of their staff now enriching themselves at the lobbyists’ trough.
It is a national shame and it is, to employ a much misused term, a scandal.

The founders’ ideal of the disinterested legislator and executive will never be reestablished until this closed political plumbing system is totally replaced. Until then, our national spirit will be strangled by this legalized corruption. And their reference to “disinterested” does not mean uninterested. They meant having no personal interest in a policy or legislative outcome. Today, there is too little distance between a legislator’s votes and his or her complex personal and financial interests, including future employment in the vast lobbying empire.

And, despite the progress in governmental transparency, recent political maneuvering, especially the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, is now cloaking money in politics under new clouds of secrecy. Our  systems of government, including  proceedings in the House and Senate and in their committees, may be more open and visible, but how those elected to the Congress finance their campaigns is now more opaque, mysterious, and easily manipulated.

Until we have the courage to punish the corrupt and rid ourselves of a system that entwines interest groups, the lobbying octopus, and campaign coffers, we will continue to fall far short of our national expectations and promise, and our government will be corrupt and corrupted.

Reprinted from the introduction to The Republic of Conscience by Gary Hart with permission of Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). Copyright (c) Gary Hart, 2015.